Melina was born Anna Amalia Mercouri or Maria Amalia Mercouri, and became well-known to international audiences when she starred in the 1960 film Never on Sunday, directed by her husband Jules Dassin. In fact, she had been making movies since 1955, first appearing in the Greek film Stella (film). Her grandfather, and the most precious person in her early life, was Spyros Merkouris, mayor of Athens for many decades. Her father was member of the Parliament. The marriage of her parents ended when she was a youngster and she lived with her mother.
Her first lover was one of the most famous Greek actors named Papas, who died in the 1960s from cancer. Melina married during her teenage years to Panos Harokopos. She later stated that although she loved her husband, their marriage was a mistake. He supported her need to become an actress, something that her family did not. They were married during the Second World War, and his wealth helped her to survive the difficult winters of the Nazi Occupation.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Never on Sunday, she went on to star in such films as Topkapi, Phaedra (movie), and Gaily, Gaily. Her first film Stella (film) (1955) was directed by Michael Cacoyannis, the director of Zorba the Greek and brought her to Cannes, where she was nominated for the lead prize. She did not won the prize, but she met there the man of her life, the director Jules Dassin. Jules Dassin was the father of Joe Dassin, the famous French singer who died very young, and the actress, Julie Dassin.
During the period of dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1974, Mercouri lived in France. When the dictatorship revoked her Greek citizenship, she said, "I was born Greek and I would die Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a dictator and he will die as a dictator." During these years she recorded 4 records in France, one with Greek lyrics and the other three with French lyrics, all created by Greek musicians, they were highly popular, and they are still critically acclaimed and remastered. Her husky and unusual voice made her the perfect performer of some great Greek songs which are known classics and performed by hundreds of singers. Her first songs was a song by Manos Hadjidakis and Nikos Gatsos. It was named Hartino to Fengaraki and it was a part of the Greek production A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949, where she starred as Blanche DuBois. The first official recording of this, now legendary song, was made by Nana Mouskouri in 1960, although the company Sirius, created by Manos Hadjidakis, issued a recording in 2004 by Melina made for the French TV during the 1960s.
Melina retired from film acting in 1978. Her last film, A Dream of Passion, was directed, as were most of her films, by her husband Jules Dassin. She starred with Ellen Burstyn. In 1980, she starred in the Greek production of Sweet Bird of Youth (by Tennessee Williams) in the lead role, which had first been played by the late Geraldine Page.
As Minister of Culture, she proposed the Cultural Capital of Europe ideal within the framework of cultural policy of the European Community. Athens inaugurated this institution in 1986. She advocated the return of the Parthenon Marbles that Lord Elgin removed from the Acropolis. Nowadays, the Marbles are part of the British Museum collection. The return of the marbles is anticipated as a highly probable eventuality. For this reason a new museum has been created under the Parthenon to host the collection and other pieces from the monument that are being removed and restored.
Mercouri died on March 6, 1994 in New York City, at the age of 73 from cancer. She was a heavy smoker and when she died hundreds of Greek citizens left her favourite brand of cigarettes at a memorial in her office. Her body was returned to Athens, and received a public mourning from millions of Greek people. She was buried with the honours normally accorded a Prime Minister. It was estimated that her funeral, on March 10, was attended by approximately 1,000,000 people.